Power From the People

Attempts to streamline Tucson's Land Use Code have gone terribly awry.

The intent of City staff was to streamline the often complex and confusing Tucson Land Use Code, a series of laws that is important to anyone seeking to do anything to their property that requires city approval.

But the result of the staff efforts has instead been massive confusion and numerous questions, turning the review and approval process for building proposals into a dragged-out mess.

Some time ago, the City Council directed that the application and appeal procedures of the Land Use Code be simplified. To comply, staff from the City Attorney's office and the Comprehensive Planning Task Force devised more than 80 pages of changes.

On a flow chart, the existing process may look like a plate of spaghetti, but the revisions resemble Egyptian hieroglyphics.

While still revising the material, the city staff asked for comments from a number of local interest groups. Initially, according to the group's government liaison, Lori Lustig, members of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association had concerns. But after the city staff met with them last week, she said it looks OK to them now.

The response from neighborhood association representatives is considerably different. At a meeting held last month, Michael McCrory of the City Attorney's office said he thought the proposed changes would increase notification of proposed projects to neighborhoods.

In response, a woman in attendance complained, "Neighbors get 10 days to comment on a project. That doesn't cut it."

Others at the meeting were simply baffled about what was being proposed. One said in frustration, "I'm so confused, I'm totally lost," while another added, "You must be from the government to expect us to know what a T.U.P. (Temporary Use Permit) is."

Bill Dupont, who attended the meeting representing his midtown neighborhood, added later, "I don't know where this is going. The lay person has to struggle to find out the true impact of these changes."

So much for simplification; as a matter of fact, even the city's Planning Commission was similarly confused. When asked to set the items for a public hearing, they have twice refused, demanding more community input into the proposal.

As a volunteer serving on a citizens committee, former Tucson resident Leo Pilachowski helped draft the current Land Use Code more than a decade ago. He remembers well how the application and appeals procedures were developed then.

"The staff did it on their own," he recalls, "with little input from us." As a result, he says, "The administrative section (of the Code) was much too complicated."

Pilachowski thinks the proposed changes aren't too bad, and they do make things less complex than before. But, he adds, they grant additional control to the city staff--and therefore takes power away from the public and, essentially, gives it to big business.

"The staff has more and more power," he says, especially the concentration of administrative decision-making in the hands of the Director of the Development Services Department.

"His customers are developers, not the public," Pilachowski says.

One of the proposed Land Use Code changes that most concerns Pilachowski is the growing list of appeals which prohibit the public from lobbying their elected representatives. In the 1980s, it was determined that after an appeal to the mayor and council from a Board of Adjustment decision, people weren't suppose to contact the elected officials, since the Board was a quasi-judicial body. The number of appeals under which contact with the City Council is now outlawed has grown considerably, and if the proposed revisions are adopted, more will be added.

Currently, anyone wishing to appeal a decision concerning development in a designated Scenic Corridor or Environmental Resource Zone has the opportunity to lobby the Mayor and Council before they hear the case. If the revised procedures are approved, that right will be lost.

Pilachowski disagrees with that approach. "Let the Mayor and Council act as a political body," he argues, adding that the city staff still has access to the elected officials prior to a decision being made on an appeal.

McCrory responds that because these appeals are judicial or administrative in nature, contact with the elected officials isn't allowed. Plus, he says, even city staff members are only to answer procedural questions about appeals. "It would not be appropriate," he indicates, "for them to discuss substantive issues with the mayor and council before an appeal is heard."

Dupont, however, is skeptical of this, saying, "We can't have the (city) attorney's taking away the public voice. They know the process, but it is very difficult for neighborhood volunteers, and is tragically concentrating more power in the staff."

Despite these disagreements, and all the confusion about what exactly is being proposed, next week the Planning Commission will be asked once again to set the item for a public hearing. But having previously refused twice to do that, even this simple step isn't a certainty since the goal of streamlining the Tucson Land Use Code has become so convoluted.

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